Hickory’s CEO ‘excited’ for future

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

Sector overview: The duo outlined challenges and future hopes
Sector overview: The duo outlined challenges and future hopes

Related tags Hickory's Multi-site pub operators Finance

Hickory’s founder Neil McDonnell and pub owner James Kowszun outlined the opportunities in the sector at the MA Leaders Conference in Liverpool yesterday (7 March).

The panel, called Opportunity Knocks, was chaired by The Morning Advertiser editor Ed Bedington.

Kowszun has worked in the industry for 25 years at companies including Bibendum and C&C. Last year he bought a pub from Marston’s.

He opened the Bax Castle in Horsham, West Sussex, in January.

He chose the pub because it was freehold, close to several population centres and in a 400-year-old building. He wanted a traditional country pub, which includes the “challenges but also character and fun” that goes with it.

He said the pub trade was a “bloody good industry,” adding, “there’s a lot about the industry that is infectious and immensely positive”.

But he acknowledged it would take hard work as the sector is facing challenges.

There is an opportunity to “do the basics really well and making sure what you do is good value,” said Kowszun.

He believes there is money out there but people have to be more careful with it so you have to give them a good reason to go out. Staff also have to be welcoming so guests want to come back.

Tackling challenges

In terms of challenges, he has found it has taken longer than expected to get things done like fixing roofs or sorting out electrics.

Find a chef had also been difficult, and then there’s the costs “around the edges”, such as energy, which also presented a challenge.

McDonnell launched southern American BBQ brand Hickory’s Smokehouse 15 years ago.

“We go to quite a few challenging areas,” he said, “areas where quite a few other big operators wouldn’t open”.

He has been “excited” by sales over the last few years. Hickory’s partnered with Greene King to establish itself into venues spread across the breadth of the country.

The operator hired an ex-police officer to knock on every door of sites near the restaurant to engage with the community. It also works with charities and schools.

McDonnell would like to think Hickory’s has embedded itself into a community months before it has secured planning permission.

And what does the company look for in a site? “What’s around it, what’s not around it,” said McDonnell. It considers the size of the building, and large outside areas, as well as a minimum of 200 covers inside.

It also looks at whether the site can be developed if it does well.

The word ‘smokehouse’ has caused issues with locals in the past, who had visions of American-style fried chicken drive throughs, so this taught McDonnell to be sensitive with wording.

It puts ‘cinemas’, which are just rooms with screens, in its sites to create a buzz in the town. The CEO said it’s also important to listen to what the people in an area want.

Get the basics right

Hickory’s has brought in five in-house recruiters to tackle staffing. They understand how to recruit chefs, as well as understanding the business’ culture and who the right fit for a role is.

How confident is McDonnell? “I feel excited”, he said. His advice for operators looking to grow is to put the right investment in if you have access to funds.

“If you do the right thing people will come,” he said. He outlines future plans: “Not scrimping, making sure we’re putting the right money in and hopefully people will come through the doors”.

Kowszun’s advice is, “if you’re going to do something, do it right”. Getting the basics right was vital, he said, or guests would notice it.

He is engaged in “collaborative competition” with local hospitality businesses, working together to get people off sofas watching TV and into the pub.

He’d rather consumers came to any pub rather than none of them. People’s habits still hadn’t gone back to normal since the pandemic, so pubs need to give them a reason to go out.

McDonnell gave advice to operators looking to expand: “[It’s about] not forgetting who the guest is and winning them over, being humble, and making them feel special every time they come in”.

Related topics MA Leaders Club

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